Mark Erelli, Rosanne Cash, Sheryl Crow, Lori McKenna, Anaïs Mitchell, & Josh Ritter, "By Degrees"

  • October 19, 2018
  • Cindy Howes

by Cindy Howes, Folk Alley

Combating gun violence is at the heart of "By Degrees," a song written by New England folk singer Mark Erelli, and featuring Rosanne Cash, Sheryl Crow, Lori McKenna, Anaïs Mitchell and Josh Ritter. Erelli originally wrote and released the song on his own in 2015. The inspiration came from the reactions - and lack of reactions - he experienced on social media after a violent mass shooting on the Umpqua Community College campus near Roseburg, OR.

“Honestly, it wasn’t so much the shooting itself that moved me to write the song, but the trending comments and tweets that I read, which took me outside the normal news sources I follow on Twitter. The hatred, the vitriol directed towards anyone who dared call for gun control was truly startling. But what was even more unsettling was the way that these tragedies kept repeating, kept happening, and each time I was less and less surprised. I noticed what was happening to my own heart, and that was the moment where the political turned personal for me, and then the personal turned into a song.”

Mark cites Rosanne Cash as a major influence when it comes to navigating the art of being an outspoken political musician in modern times. “I am a largely under-the-radar folksinger, but her support of the song has really encouraged me to think bigger, to look for ways I might be able to make a difference. I am so grateful to her for her encouragement and guidance throughout the eight months I’ve been working on this project.” Cash calls the song "the most compassionate, vivid and non-preaching anti-gun violence song I’ve ever heard,” it’s her voice that opens the newly released version of “By Degrees:”

“When I take a look around me, sometimes I wish I was blind/ Feels like something’s sacred’s dying one headline at a line/ I can’t tear myself away. I just stare in disbelief/ You can learn to live with anything when it happens by degrees.”

Sales of the digital single, which is out now on Signature Sounds, benefits Gabby Giffords' organization to fight gun violence: The Courage To Fight Gun Violence. Giffords, who survived a mass shooting and assassination attempt in 2011, has voiced her support for the song with a personal message on her Twitter:

All performances on the song are especially moving, but the standout verse is sung by the brilliant Anaïs Mitchell. There’s something about the vulnerability in her delivery that is bound to shake any soul. It’s quite possibly because hers is the verse that directly deals with the most horrifying mass shooting in modern memory: the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting in Newtown, CT that took the lives of 20 children between six and seven years old and six adult staff members. Anaïs sings: “I’ve seen little hands on little shoulders, children in a line/ I’ve seen them lead away from school as the shots rang out inside/ I thought something had to change, but somehow it’s become routine/ We can learn to live with anything when it happens by degrees.”

Three years after Erelli wrote “By Degrees,” he says he’s felt a change in it’s meaning, “It’s hard not to feel like the lyrics are literally, daily playing out in real time in the real world. The way we isolate ourselves inside our phones, the anonymity that digital platforms offer us coarsening our discourse, and unthinkable tragedies happening all the time where you think ‘it can’t possibly get worse,’ until it does. My high school yearbook quote was that Dylan Thomas one about raging against the “dying of the light,” and that is kind of what it feels like when I sing this song. I can’t let myself become numb to this, and I am imploring others to resist the urge as well.

"By Degrees" roots lay in a traditional folk protest song and Erelli is one of the best unsung folk writers out there. His message and song have been taken up by major Americana music personalities with the hope of spreading into American consciousness and raising money for a good cause. The most important part of his message, however, is that Americans not become accustomed to the violent and tragic and unfortunately numerous mass shootings that occur in the United States. You can learn to live with anything when it happens by degrees, but it doesn’t mean you should.